Saving Lives

The Helen Woodward Animal Center was formed in 1972 by Helen Whittier-Woodward in order to rescue and shelter abandoned animals and promote humane animal care through education and community outreach. Helen’s belief that all living things deserve compassion, respect, unconditional love, and care still serves as the foundation for the center today. With the mission of “people helping animals, animals helping people,” the center not only functions as a temporary shelter for animals but as a provider of services for the public, devoted to improving the relationship between people and animals.

Q&A with Public Relations Manager, Jessica Gercke

What is the history behind the Helen Woodward Animal Center?
Helen Whittier-Woodward grew up in Los Angeles. She moved to Del Mar and bought a small farm in Rancho Santa Fe in 1971, just up the road from Fairbanks Ranch where Douglas Fairbanks lived. Working with former Humane Society of the United States President Mel Morse, in 1972 Helen started the Animal Care and Education Center. Helen’s first steps were to create an adoption center and to establish a humane education department. With these programs in place she could begin finding homes for animals immediately while also focusing on a long-term solution. She reasoned that the only way to successfully change the way people treated animals was to start with the children and educate them on how to become more compassionate and respectful of all living things. Helen died in 1984 and in 1987 the center was renamed in her honor.

What mission does the shelter hold true?
The center’s passionate belief that animals help people and people help animals through trust, unconditional love, and respect creates a legacy of caring. Sharing this philosophy with others, the center inspires and teaches, both locally and globally, the importance of the animal-human bond.

What type of animals does the center shelter?
We have an ever-shifting list of beautiful dogs, puppies, cats, and kittens available through our San Diego pet adoption program. Our animals come from a variety of sources, such as the transfer of animals from public shelters to relieve overcrowding (approximately 90%), as well as owner surrender. Every animal in our pet adoption program has received a medical examination, spay or neuter surgery, vaccinations, tons of TLC, and a microchip. Our goal is to adopt out our animals into loving and permanent homes.


The education department at the center serves children of all ages by providing a variety of unique learning opportunities which support the bond between humans and animals by nurturing knowledge, compassion, and respect toward all living things. Our critter camp provides a variety of hands-on animal interactions for children of all ages from bunnies, alpacas, sheep, horses, cats, and dogs to snakes, blue-tongued skinks, birds, and even hissing cockroaches.

Please tell us about key staff members, their professional background, and the knowledge and experience they bring to the animal center.
Helen Woodward Animal Center President Michael Arms is a pioneer in the animal welfare industry. He is recognized worldwide as the creator of both the International Pet Adoptathon and Home 4 the Holidays events. Mike is credited with saving the lives of more orphaned animals than anyone else in the history of the planet.

Since his arrival in 1999, the center has grown dramatically. Pet adoptions have leaped to record levels. Our education program has multiplied as we teach children about the unconditional love that only comes from animals. And our therapy programs touch the lives of tens of thousands of people each year.

Mike Arms has created numerous successful events and programs at the center, including the Surf Dog Surf-A-Thon in 2005, and the HOPE Telethon, all of which help raise funds and awareness for orphan pets, as well as other center programs.

Mike also created the Business of Saving Lives Conference and workshops, which teach participants more effective ways to find families for orphaned pets. Animal shelter workers from the United States, Argentina, Canada, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Ireland, Iran, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Romania, and Singapore have traveled to the center to learn the business of saving lives. Two international conferences held off-site also connected expertise, innovation, and industry leaders to save precious lives and positively transform animal welfare. Participants go away with tried-and-true techniques to improve their fundraising skills, education concepts, volunteer management, public relations, social media, and marketing efforts in order to increase their adoptions and advance animal welfare in their organization and their community.

Most recently, Mike created the extremely popular Remember Me Thursday global awareness campaign, which encourages individuals to light a candle (literally or virtually) on the fourth Thursday of September every year and to “opt to adopt,” with the hope of reducing the millions of orphan pets euthanized each year. Grassroots programs and events sprung up around the world, in countries such as Japan, Puerto Rico, Australia, the United Kingdom, Spain, and many more. Over 4,500 candles were lit at the Remember Me Thursday virtual candle gallery, while thousands more were lit at ceremonies honoring orphan pets around the globe.


Can you tell us about the celebrity endorsements that have supported the center?
Diane Keaton is a dear friend, supporter, and board member. Other celebrity friends and supporters include Tippi Hedron, Betty White, Kristen Bell, Kristin Chenoweth, Jackson Galaxy, Hilary Swank, and Felicity Huffman.

This year 17 celebrity luminaries actively participated in our Remember Me Thursday campaign including Emmy Award-winner and Golden Globe-nominated actress Katherine Heigl who was the 2014 official spokesperson for the campaign. Celebrity luminaries such as Alan Cumming, Beth Stern, David Backes, and Ian Somerhalder shared their thoughts on pet adoption via a video PSA, personal quotes and pet photos, and via their social media accounts in a special online gallery. In all, more than 50 celebrities posted social media messages or provided other support for the campaign.

What types of events does the center put on? Are there any events coming up that our
readers should be aware of?
Our annual Spring Fling Gala on the first weekend of June is a gorgeous fundraiser with sampler plates served from 16 five-star restaurants all over the city. Our annual Surf Dog Surf-A-Thon, held every September, brings thousands of people from all over the country to see adorable canine athletes surf the waves. Our Humane Education Department creates kid-focused Autumn Harvest Tours in October and a Frosty Farms Event in December. Our upcoming events include The Business of Saving Lives Conference held from Feb. 5 through Feb. 7, and the 6th Annual Puppy Love 5K Run/Walk which will take place on March 15.

What is the center currently in need of?
There are so many ways to help the pets and programs at the center, including adopting a pet, volunteering, making a donation, partnering your business with ours as a “business buddy,” or even sponsoring one of our therapeutic riding horses. One of our most major and consistent needs is for foster families. Fostering expands the center’s walls by providing a safe and sterile environment for underage and under-vaccinated puppies and kittens, or dogs and cats recovering from surgery who need more time before they can be put up for adoption. Our foster volunteers help to save more lives by opening space at the center for the orphan animals who are ready to find their forever homes. For more information on fostering visit


Are you currently looking for volunteers?
We are in constant need of volunteers. Volunteers can help with our center programs on a regular basis or at our special events once a year. Center program volunteering requires a six-month or 70-hour time commitment. Potential program volunteers must attend a volunteer orientation first. These are held on Saturdays in the mornings (usually quarterly). Volunteers are then required to attend an interview session with the department supervisor and training as well. To volunteer at a one-day special event, volunteers do not need to attend an orientation first.

What’s the most rewarding aspect about working with the center?
Seeing unbelievably moving success stories every single day. Our pet encounter therapy animals have helped stroke patients speak again. Our therapeutic riding horses have helped handicapped riders gain motor skills and confidence. Our adopters have given neglected dogs a reason to wag their tails again. Our foster families have provided crucial care to motherless kittens giving them a second chance at life. There is honest-to-goodness love, kindness, healing, beauty, strength, courage, and joy happening at the center on a regular basis.

Does the center have any plans for expansion?
We are in Phase II of the Capital Campaign to rebuild the center. Our short-term goal is to rebuild our adoptions building by creating indoor/outdoor kennels and to expand its medical facilities. Our long-term goal is to rebuild the remaining portions of the center including our humane education buildings, our Club Pet facilities, and our equine hospital.

Can you tell us about one of your favorite experiences working with the center?
The Hurricane Sandy rescue of stranded shelter dogs and cats is something I don’t think any of us will ever forget. Nearly 50 orphan pets from Save-A-Pet on Long Island and from New Jersey shelters rescued by Delaware County SPCA were flown across the country to the center in Rancho Santa Fe on Nov. 17, 2012.

The East Coast shelter canines and felines had been waiting for forever homes when the storm hit and left their facilities uninhabitable. With remaining East Coast shelters reaching full capacity and unable to provide resources for all of the homeless pets in need, the center hoped to take them in but lacked the resources to transport the orphan pets to the West Coast. The missing link arrived in an impressive 48-hour turn-around with a chartered plane coordinated by center friend, John Reilly, President of Sea World San Diego, and donated by the generous leadership at Southwest Airlines. BP, who provides Southwest’s fuel, donated nearly 5,000 gallons of fuel to the life-saving flight as well. The Southwest aircraft was staffed with an animal-loving crew of pilots and flight attendants, each of whom donated their time and hearts to the homeless dogs and cats.

We were all waiting on the tarmac as the plane touched down. One by one these dogs and cats were carried out of the plane in the arms of smiling rescuers. I’m pretty sure we were all crying. I remember in particular, one little dog who lay down on the ground, rolled over on his back, and wiggled with joy. We were all laughing and giving him belly rubs. Each one of those beautiful babies found their forever homes in sunny San Diego. It was incredibly moving to have been a part of that.


Programs and Services

Offering specialized services celebrating the healing power of animals and people, the center can boast a conservative number of more than nine million animals saved or assisted and over one million people served throughout San Diego County, Southern California, the nation, and the world in its over 40-year history. The organization offers 12 unique programs focused on the mission of “people helping animals, animals helping people” including:

Pet Adoptions
Currently placing approximately 2,900 dogs and cats in loving homes annually.

Humane Education
Teaching children respect, compassion, responsibility, safety, and how to provide care for animals through hands-on animal encounters for more than 10,000 people annually.

Providing food for the pets of over 500 homebound elderly people each week throughout San Diego County with the help of partner organizations like Meals on Wheels.

Pet Encounter Therapy
Bringing unconditional love of animals to more than 25,000 clients every year in hospitals,
convalescent centers, children’s facilities, and other institutions.

Therapeutic Horseback Riding
Assisting with increased balance and muscle control, improved concentration and short-term memory, and enhanced confidence and self-esteem for approximately 50 physically and mentally
challenged clients each week.

Blue Buffalo Home 4 the Holidays Pet Adoption Campaign
Encouraging families to save lives during the holidays by adopting their pets from animal rescues – taking business away from puppy mills and backyard breeders. Along with over 3,000 partner organizations, in all 50 states and 23 countries, the program has adopted over nine million orphaned pets since the 1999 inception.

Equine Hospital
Providing high-quality veterinary care for the health and welfare of more than 1,000 equine patients each year and education to the public and equine professionals in matters of the health and welfare of horses.

Club Pet Boarding
Providing “a home away from home” and the very best attention and care for your pet’s physical and emotional needs and previously voted San Diego’s best pet boarding facility.

The Business of Saving Lives Workshops
Providing complimentary three-day workshops for animal welfare staff and volunteers in over 40 states and 17 countries, covering everything from humane education to public relations in order to help organizations run as life-saving businesses.

Companion Animal Hospital
Providing state-of-the-art-care to local community cats, dogs, and exotic animals.

Remember Me Thursday Awareness Campaign
Inviting organizations and individuals to dedicate the fourth Thursday of September annually to remembering the millions of healthy homeless pets who lost their lives over the last year by lighting a candle of remembrance.

I Remember You Website
Providing comfort and healing upon the loss of a beloved furry friend through dedicated virtual candles and personalized pet photos posted on the

Memorable Moments

“An orphan dog brought to us who had lost her puppies but was nursing a kitten!”

“An orphan Maltipoo who had saved a puppy from a coyote.”

“An orphan cat who had taken multiple BB bullets to her head but wouldn’t leave her kittens’ sides.”

“Four senior female dogs we named ‘The Golden Girls’ who found beautiful families.”


Center’s International Programs

Blue Buffalo Home 4 the Holidays Pet Adoption Campaign
Our Blue Buffalo Home 4 the Holidays pet adoption campaign is an international, three-month pet adoption campaign dedicated to finding happy, loving homes for orphan pets. The annual campaign began 16 years ago when Helen Woodward Animal Center President and CEO Mike Arms noticed that a majority of rescue facilities were closing their doors during the holiday season – a primary time of year for family pet additions. With shelter doors closed, would-be adopters were resorting to shopping pet stores or puppy mills for holiday pet purchases. Not only did this increase the business of non-reputable stores and breeders, but Mike was aware that the staff at these businesses were rarely trained to assay the likelihood of a successful animal/family match, increasing the number of pets sent to shelters once the season was over.

The Blue Buffalo Home 4 the Holidays Campaign asks shelters to keep their doors open throughout the holiday months and provides marketing tools to get the word out. Through a collective group of over 4,000 pet adoption agencies, facilities, and rescue-groups, located throughout all 50 states and 23 countries, this campaign has become the largest pet adoption campaign on record, helping save over nine million pets since 1999.

The Business of Saving Lives workshops
The International ACES Conference was the next big step for the center, which regularly offers a quarterly free, three-day workshop on the Rancho Santa Fe grounds. Over the past 10 years, animal lovers, shelter workers, and humanitarians have made the “pilgrimage” to learn more effective ways to increase adoptions and lower euthanasia. The workshops have attracted shelter workers from throughout the United States and as far away as Argentina, China, Ethiopia, India, Ireland, Kenya, Romania, and Singapore. Within weeks after returning to their home shelters, ACES graduates report amazing results, placing more pets in lifelong homes, generating added funds to carry on their programs, and expanding their reach into their communities.

The International Conference provides an extensive line-up of some of the most cutting-edge speakers, thinkers, and activists in the animal welfare industry today. The ground-breaking event provides tools that no other organization is offering – skills to save lives today and end euthanasia tomorrow. With brand new ways to look at aspects of animal welfare, marketing, social media, fundraising, training, and more, the conference explores how these concepts can breathe life into adoptions programs that are outdated and killing millions of domestic animals annually.

Remember Me Thursday Awareness Campaign
The first Remember Me Thursday took place on the fourth Thursday in September, 2013. Moved by the staggering statistics of homeless pets who lose their lives each year (The Humane Society of the United States approximates this number at 3.4 million annually in the U.S.), Helen Woodward Animal Center President Mike Arms put out a call to rescue organizations in an attempt to create a global awareness campaign. The response was significant – 139 countries united to support the movement including Germany, Mexico, Canada, Spain, the Philippines, Japan, Puerto Rico, Australia, the United Kingdom, and many more, with over 100,000 individuals holding candle lighting ceremonies of their own, spreading the message through social media, visiting the Remember Me Thursday website, or lighting a virtual candle.



At-A-Glance | Jessica Gercke

Community: San Carlos
Education: BA in Pre-Law, UCSB
Family: I am married to my wonderful husband, Francis Gercke, and my “children” are my adopted Greyhound-blend dogs Willow and Wilson and my adopted Manx, Sweetpea.
Interests: My husband and I are both theatre actors. We met on stage!
Favorite Part About Working with Helen Woodward Animal Center: Every job has its challenges and tough days, but I have never had another job where I can so simply erase the worries of the day. All I have to do is walk across our property and look into the face of an adoptable dog or cat, an education alpaca, or pet encounter therapy rabbit. They remind me every day that we are making a difference and that is so good for my heart.

At-A-Glance | Helen Woodward Animal Center

President: Mike Arms
Vice President of Development: Renee Resko
Vice President of Operations: Rita Truderung
Animal Services Manager: Ed Farrelly
Phone: 858-756-4117